A Dose of Satire Elevates These Festival Mockumentaries

Man in a military uniform with his arm around a woman in pearls and a dress

F. Murray Abraham portrays Stalin and Judy Davis a leftist Australian in “Children of the Revolution.”

By Vanessa Zimmer

If narrative films are the grilled salmon and documentaries are the leafy green salads, then mockumentaries are the gooey cheesecakes of cinema. 

And, just as a slice of sweet cheesecake might delight your taste buds on a whole other level, a good mockumentary might tickle your sensibilities with its layers of irony and parody. 

So, onto dessert, served up with a heavy dollop of satire as we present the mockumentaries from the vaults of the Sundance Institute and its annual Festival.

Man Bites Dog (C’est arrivé près de chez vous) (1993 Sundance Film Festival) — Possibly the best idea for a mockumentary ever: Follow a serial killer as he goes about everyday life and death. But when directors Rémy Belvaux and André Bonzel do nothing to stop the killing — and then start joining in — the intent of this film becomes clear: Our voyeurism is deeply and profoundly disturbing. The fictional directors are the mockumentary’s directors, as is the fictional serial killer (Benoît Poelvoorde). Poelvoorde’s performance drew praise for its charisma and exuberance. (Tagline: A Killer Comedy.) Check viewing options here.

Fear of a Black Hat (1993 Sundance Film Festival) — Writer-director Rusty Cundieff also stars (as Ice Cold) in this send-up of the rap world. Tasty Taste (Larry B. Scott) and Tone Def (Mark Christopher Lawrence) round out the rap trio N.W.H. They “speak candidly (sometimes a bit too much so) and allow us into their lives for a rarely glimpsed view of the rap world,” according to the Festival Program Guide. “Rap may never recover.” Sundance alum Kasi Lemmons interviews the band about misogyny, racism, violence, “their seemingly obsessive use of profanity, and why they’ve been grossly misunderstood on songs such as ‘Kill Whitey’ and ‘F___ the Security Guards.’” Check viewing options here.

Children of the Revolution (1997 Sundance Film Festival) — This complex parody involves a passionate leftist Australian named Joan Fraser (Judy Davis), Joseph Stalin (F. Murray Abraham), and the son from their brief relationship who pushes Australia to the brink of civil war. “Add in Sam Neill as Nine, a spy and double agent, and Geoffrey Rush as Joan’s faithful working-class husband, and you have the makings of a totally madcap and nearly epic farce,” Geoffrey Gilmore writes in the Festival Program Guide. “A mélange of comedy and tragedy, fact and fiction, Children of the Revolution is the kind of inspired filmmaking which should not be missed.” Written and directed by Peter Duncan. Available on DVD.

A Foreign Affair (2003 Sundance Film Festival) — After their mother dies, two brothers (David Arquette and Tim Blake Nelson) decide they need wives to help with the household and farm chores. Thus, they embark on a romance tour of St. Petersburg, Russia. There, a British journalist (Emily Mortimer) puts them in her documentary. “By interspersing the narrative with mockumentary footage of the romance tourists, director Helmut Schleppi sends up the selfish and ultimately clueless men who are convinced they can find wives like they might find personal assistants,” writes Shan Fowler in the Festival Program Guide. Check for viewing options here.

Marcel the Shell with Shoes On (2011 Sundance Film Festival) — This four-minute stop-motion film stars Marcel, an inch-tall seashell with a single googly eye and wearing tiny laced-up shoes. Voiced by Jenny Slate (who also co-wrote the script with director Dean Fleischer-Camp), Marcel is adorable and innocent, offering up such trivia as using human toenails as skis. Two more shorts and a feature-length film followed. The first short is available on YouTube.

What We Do in the Shadows (2014 Sundance Film Festival) — In these modern days, it’s not easy being a vampire. Living with vampire roommates in a flat in Wellington, New Zealand, it’s hard to make friends, for one thing, and to… put food on the table — especially in tandem. Writer-directors Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi play two of the flatmates. “The end result is a hysterical mockumentary that unearths a secret, supernatural society where friendship and camaraderie are just as important as feasting upon the flesh of mortals,” Owl Johnson and Adam Montgomery wrote in the Festival Program Guide. The film spawned a TV series. Check viewing options for the film here.

Jacqueline Argentine (2016 Sundance Film Festival) — Wyatt Cenac plays a filmmaker who gathers a crew and heads to a holistic retreat in Argentina, where Frenchwoman Jacqueline Dumont (Camille Rutherford) is hiding out. Dumont claims to have uncovered some kind of assassination conspiracy. But the filmmaker soon begins to doubt her veracity. First-time feature director Bernardo Britto … makes fresh use of the mockumentary format to create a film playful in both form and content that reflects the uncertainties and hopefulness inherent in every artistic endeavor,” Heidi Zwicker writes in the Festival Program Guide. The film also benefited from a Sundance Institute Catalyst Forum in 2014. Check viewing options here.

Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. (2022 Sundance Film Festival) — Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown move the hilarious needle in this parody of a megachurch’s first lady (Hall) and pastor (Brown) attempting to rebuild their congregation after a scandal involving the pastor. For their first feature film, the Ebo twins, Adamma (writer-director) and Adanne (producer), built upon the two characters from their previous short with the same title. “Partially shot in faux-documentary style, this lively satire on for-profit religion explores both the on-camera desperation in image rebranding and the hard truths that fester behind the scenes,” according to the Festival Program Guide. Check out the viewing options here.

Theater Camp (2023 Sundance Film Festival) — The beloved founder (Amy Sedaris) of AdirondACTS theater camp in upstate New York gets injured in a freak accident and sinks into a coma, leaving her clueless son (Jimmy Tatro) to keep the kids camp going. Uh-oh. “First-time feature directorial duo Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman authentically celebrate the brilliant and slightly unhinged educators and magical spaces that allow kids to be themselves and find their confidence, nailing the details after experiencing decades of camp life,” according to the Festival Program Guide. The film won a Special Jury Award for its ensemble cast in the U.S. Dramatic category. Theater Camp arrives in theaters July 14.

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